The wonder of Christmas is upon us again. Every year we participate in time-honored traditions—Yule logs, eggnog, Santa hats, and ugly sweaters—mostly unaware of the holiday’s origins. If you’ve ever asked why, come December, we risk our sanity propping up and decorating fir trees in our living rooms, wonder no longer. Keep reading to discover the answer to these mysteries and more.
Why do we celebrate Christmas in December?
The holiday honors the birth of Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. Although early Christians did not agree on the exact date of his birth, by the 4th century December 25 became the official holiday. This day aligned with pre-Christian pagan festivals that would continue to be celebrated throughout Europe during the Medieval winter solstice.
When did we start bringing trees into our homes?
Staging trees to celebrate winter festivals is a long-held tradition dating back to the Romans. Decorating evergreens for Christmas extended from Medieval Northern Europe to the Victorian era, when a German emperor brought the custom to England. The Christmas tree was soon after adopted by Americans. Starting in the Renaissance, celebrants decorated conifers with candles, glass figures, garlands, ribbons, snow-like cotton candy, pastries, and fruits. By the mid-20th century, decorators added flocking to simulate snow, sugar ornaments and a wide variety of modern accoutrements we still use today.
Why so many balls?
Some of the first adornments on Christmas trees were apples, believed to be the forbidden fruit that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. However, these edibles did not have a long shelf life. Eventually the red and green objects morphed into shiny round spheres of the same colors hanging from our cherished trees.
Why the holiday lights up our lives?
Until the 20th century, wealthy Europeans used candles to shine light on the tree ornaments. They usually glued the melted wax or attached lanterns to the branches, until light bulbs were invented. By the early 20th century, American businesses started displaying Christmas lights to illuminate their store windows. Most people could not afford the luxury of expensive lights until the 1950s, when they became the norm.
Why do we buy Christmas presents?
You can thank the Magi for the season of giving. Although some lament that the true spirit of Christmas has been lost in crass commercialization, gift-giving is an ancient tradition with strong religious roots. Its origins can be traced to three foreign kings who, having traveled far from home, bequeathed treasures to the infant child Jesus. Each of the wise men gave expensive presents fit for a king—including gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts likely helped finance Jesus and his parents’ subsequent migration to Egypt, an attempt to escape violence in their homeland.
This traditional spice-giving ritual continues today as well. The festive drink called Glühwein (pronounced “glue-vine”), literally “glow wine,” is consumed customarily at Christmas parties and markets throughout Northern Europe. The mulled wine is served warm with cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange and rum. Likewise, Americans traditionally spike their eggnog drinks not only with rum, but also with similar aromatic spices including nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla.
What is a Yule log and why is it necessary?
The Yule log is a handsome piece of wood that is placed in a hearth and burned during Christmas celebrations. Originating in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages, the burning brightness of logs in the gloom of mid-winter symbolizes good, while the ashes left over represent the triumph over evil. While the forces of darkness are typically not considered when these logs are burned today, this holiday tradition continues to warm reclining pets and merrymakers throughout the season.
Does Santa Claus really exist?
Warning: spoiler alert. The answer to this question depends on your age and willingness to believe in the magic of Christmas. While many American children under eight believe Santa Claus delivers toys via a reindeer-guided sleigh and climbs down countless chimneys every year, others remain skeptical. The origins of Santa Claus can be traced to a monk named St. Nicholas, who was born in a Greek town during the late 3rd century, in present-day Turkey. He currently lives at the North Pole.